ROBERT HARDMAN reports from (normally) true blue North Shropshire 

The man with the toughest job in politics… and the constituency that holds Boris Johnson’s fate in its hands, ROBERT HARDMAN reports from (normally) true blue North Shropshire

He is the man with arguably the toughest job in British politics right now. As the Tory candidate in perhaps the most pivotal by-election for a political generation, Neil Shastri-Hurst unwittingly finds himself the lightning conductor for a monumental series of self-inflicted Conservative catastrophes.

In the first instance, this by-election is only happening because the previous Tory MP, Owen Paterson, stood down after a lobbying scandal (involving companies which had been paying him £100,000 a year).

From sleaze to cheese and wine, via Peppa Pig, No 10 wallpaper and the dismal failures over the fall of Kabul, along with the opinion polls falling and a growing backbench Tory ‘Plan B mutiny’, the other candidates here in North Shropshire scarcely know where to start when lobbing bricks at Dr Shastri-Hurst’s campaign.

On top of all the above, their chief weapon of choice is the simple fact that he is not local. A major player in regional Tory politics, Dr Shastri-Hurst has been parachuted in from Birmingham.

As the Tory candidate in perhaps the most pivotal by-election for a political generation, Neil Shastri-Hurst unwittingly finds himself the lightning conductor for a monumental series of self-inflicted Conservative catastrophes

As the Tory candidate in perhaps the most pivotal by-election for a political generation, Neil Shastri-Hurst unwittingly finds himself the lightning conductor for a monumental series of self-inflicted Conservative catastrophes

Yet it falls to him to sell Boris Johnson’s increasingly tarnished wares to the electorate here next Thursday.

Dr Shastri-Hurst does, at least, have two very useful qualifications on his CV. As a former Army doctor and GP, he is well trained in being shot at and in dressing wounds. Right now, he is coping with a lot of both, even when he is just dodging a downpour on the campaign trail.

I join him canvassing in Pant, a village on the Welsh boundaries of this sprawling agricultural constituency. And the blue rosette is like a rifle target.

‘Your lot are just a bloody disgrace. I don’t know how you can show your face with that man of yours in charge. He should resign — or be arrested, like he would be in any other job,’ thunders retired toolmaker Graham Yapp, sitting at the bar of the Cross Keys, to appreciative nods from other drinkers. Dr Shastri-Hurst hasn’t even had time to order his cup of tea.

Nor is Mr Yapp some foam-flecked Trot pining for Jeremy Corbyn. He is a Margaret Thatcher devotee and — until the other day, at least — was a lifelong Tory voter. The lobbying scandal that created this by-election was bad enough, he says, almost trembling with rage. But the ‘mess-up’ over the Downing Street lockdown party (or was it parties?) has really riled him: ‘You can say what you like but you’ve lost my vote!’

Dr Shastri-Hurst lets him vent his very considerable spleen and then calmly explains that he himself was very disappointed by what he has read about the Downing Street party, that wrongdoing must be punished and so on.

In the first instance, this by-election is only happening because the previous Tory MP, Owen Paterson, stood down after a lobbying scandal (involving companies which had been paying him £100,000 a year). The candidates are pictured above

In the first instance, this by-election is only happening because the previous Tory MP, Owen Paterson, stood down after a lobbying scandal (involving companies which had been paying him £100,000 a year). The candidates are pictured above

He doesn’t try to duck Mr Yapp’s stream of invective and takes it on the chin. By the end, he even coaxes a handshake out of his assailant. There still is not a chance in hell that Mr Yapp will return to the Tory fold next week, but the Conservative candidate can console himself with the fact that he won’t be voting for anyone else either.

Amazingly, this is not even an unusual scene in Shropshire right now. It seems mind-boggling that there should be the faintest prospect of anyone other than the Tories winning a rural gem comprising five handsome market towns plus a lot of pretty villages and country estates in between.

I find a buoyant and mustard-keen Liberal Democrat campaign headquartered in the former stable block of a charming Tudor mansion, no less. Soulton Hall, in the hands of the Ashton family for centuries, is not far from where Charles Darwin unearthed his first fossil. There is no shortage of fascinating history hereabouts — but this area could be adding a new chapter next week.

For if Boris Johnson’s Tories lose this seat, the party will be consumed with wrath and fear in equal measure. Safe-as-houses Tory MPs and their activists will be asking themselves: if it can happen in true-blue Shropshire, then is anywhere going to be secure next time round?

And the bookies — always the safest pointer in these quirky contests — have just put the Lib Dems ahead as favourites. Labour activists are calling it a ‘perfect storm’. One Tory minister has called it a ‘clusterf***’; another says ‘it is the beginning of the end’.

Of course, by-elections have a long and noble tradition of giving incumbent administrations a bloody nose. This one feels different, though. For if the Tories lose, it will not just be symptomatic of the midterm woes of a flabby Government. It will hasten what has already been a very sudden and dramatic change in the political weather.

That change began last month when the PM tried to rig an inquiry into that lobbying scandal involving the then Tory MP, Owen Paterson, only to flip-flop and leave Paterson to fall on his sword. Since when, the list of Tory disasters has been mounting, all of them of the party’s own making.

Just yesterday, a YouGov poll gave Labour its highest rating in almost a year. A four-point Opposition lead is not, on paper, grounds for panic, except that the last time Labour were in this position was in the midst of last winter’s Covid shambles. In other words, it was not during a crisis that was the Government’s fault.

Similarly, the summer’s by-election result in suburban Chesham & Amersham was a heck of a result for the moribund Lib Dems.

However, that one occurred against the backdrop of a hugely unpopular blot on the local landscape, in the form of HS2 building works, which are still gouging vast holes out of the once-lovely Chilterns. An element of Remainer revenge among a middle-class commuter-professional cohort was a factor, too.

For if the Tories lose, it will not just be symptomatic of the midterm woes of a flabby Government. It will hasten what has already been a very sudden and dramatic change in the political weather. That change began last month when the PM tried to rig an inquiry into that lobbying scandal involving the then Tory MP, Owen Paterson, only to flip-flop and leave Paterson to fall on his sword

For if the Tories lose, it will not just be symptomatic of the midterm woes of a flabby Government. It will hasten what has already been a very sudden and dramatic change in the political weather. That change began last month when the PM tried to rig an inquiry into that lobbying scandal involving the then Tory MP, Owen Paterson, only to flip-flop and leave Paterson to fall on his sword

Here in North Shropshire, there are no vast, unsightly developments in prospect. The area was heavily in favour of Brexit (by nearly two to one in places) and I hear no grumbles about that. The issue here is the Prime Minister’s personal integrity and competence. For, remove those issues from the equation, and the other parties really would not have much to go on here.

The Lib Dem candidate is Helen Morgan, a chartered accountant with a teenager at a local school, who came third here at the last General Election. She is making as much noise as she can about the recent closure of a local ambulance station. ‘We’re not focusing on sleaze,’ she says, which seems to be true —largely because she doesn’t need to. The Tories are doing a better job of it themselves.

I hear similar arguments from Labour’s Ben Wood, 26, an articulate and confident parliamentary adviser who was born and bred here but seems destined for greater things on safer turf elsewhere.

‘I am getting four or five Tories a day telling me they’re voting Labour this time,’ says Mr Wood.

‘The Downing Street party is the big issue because it reminds people of what a horrible time they were having last year.’

There is currently a spat between these two rival camps over suggestions that one should make way for the other in order to oust the Tories.

The Guardian has been urging Labour to step aside, much to the disgust of Labour fans who argue that they have traditionally been runners-up here. The Green candidate, Duncan Kerr, a local councillor, offers a dispassionate overview. ‘The fact is angry Tories won’t vote Labour but they might just vote Lib Dem.’

He is frank about the outlook. ‘Last week, I didn’t imagine that the Lib Dems could get over the line, but that’s all changed after what’s happened in Downing Street. They could take it.’

We are chatting in an Ellesmere car park following a debate arranged by the local National Farmers’ Union. This seat is not just rural but overwhelmingly agricultural. Even the larger industrial employers here are in the farming game — Oaklands (eggs) and Muller (yoghurts).

You need to know your Defra jargon, which is why Owen Paterson, a former Defra minister, was so popular. For once, the Tory candidate is delighted to get a question about muck-raking — literally. Local farmer Bruce Edwards is angry about Whitehall plans to impose restrictions on when farmers can spread manure on their own fields.

It’s hardly Dr Shastri-Hurst’s area of expertise but he agrees that it should be left to farmers. He has secured Mr Edwards’s vote. ‘He’s the only one worth voting for,’ says the organic dairy farmer.

The Tories have come under attack for hiding their candidate from the media. When Dr Shastri-Hurst is ambushed by a BBC crew on the way out, he actually makes a fairly decent fist of handling the lengthy charge sheet of ‘What about . .?’ allegations. I notice that he doesn’t curtail the interview but lets it run its course.

A Birmingham-born former deputy chairman of the Tories’ West Midlands group, he is a more experienced operator than some of the party’s by-election candidates in recent years. He seems quite capable of fighting his own fights without handlers, which is just as well in the circumstances.

Now 38, he is still a qualified doctor, despite retraining as a barrister, and returned to the NHS during the pandemic. His Indian-heritage father was a devoted lifelong GP in Birmingham, he explains, and his Surrey-born mother was a nurse.

Boris Johnson came up to support his campaign the other day and managed to get his name wrong (he called him Shastri-Hughes). Toe-curling stuff. The would-be MP laughs it off. ‘I’ve had much worse,’ he says.

The other candidates are making much of the fact that he is from far-off metropolitan Brum. He is adamant that he will be making his home here with his wife, Naomi, and baby son, George, should he be elected.

However, that has not been enough to avert defections from the local Tory party. Mark Whittle, another former soldier, was a local Tory association chairman and is a former mayor of Market Drayton. He has just defected to Reform, the party born from the remnants of the Brexit Party and the rubble of UKIP.

‘The Tories just dumped Neil on us as the candidate before we had a say. I showed him round town and I wasn’t impressed and then I decided to leave the party,’ says Mr Whittle, who served in the Falklands and Kosovo. ‘People here want someone who actually knows that there isn’t a bus service to Telford Hospital.’

As an ambulance driver himself, Mr Whittle describes other candidates’ complaints about ambulance station closures as ‘a complete red herring’. It’s the fact that the Tories are fielding a non-Salopian, he says, and raising two fingers at the general public with their raucous parties, that will do for them here.

He adds that he was expecting a lot of grief and abuse from local Tories when he defected. 

‘In fact, everyone has been very nice about it,’ he says. The Reform candidate, Kirsty Walmsley, 39, a local businesswoman and mother of two young children, insists that she is a ‘wild card’ in the election. She will not, of course, win next week but her result is one that the Conservative high command will be watching extremely closely.

Walking the streets of delightful places like Wem — birthplace of the sweet pea — and pub-filled Oswestry, I sense that the Tories still have a strong residual support from voters, especially older ones, for whom the Downing Street party row is just London ‘noise’.

‘It might bias the vote I suppose but it’s just tit-for-tat stuff,’ says retired chef John Robinson. ‘I’ve had my booster, things are OK. I’ll stick with the Conservatives.’

Carer and hairdresser Jane Skone speaks for many, however, when she says her erstwhile Tory vote is now very much afloat — if not at sea — after the latest ‘shenanigans’.

For there is now another huge problem to park at Boris Johnson’s door. At the last election, he saw off the UKIP/Brexit/Reform threat, as a result of which dozens of his candidates became MPs and he won a thumping majority. It was a seismic political achievement.

If Reform now make respectable inroads into the Tory majority next week by appealing to the furious Right of the party, then many sitting MPs will begin to fear a return to the vote-splitting era of Nigel Farage.

That would be an even bigger long-term nightmare than who drank what with whom under the Downing Street mistletoe last Christmas.